KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — The Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii in Kailua-Kona has been awarded a $1.8 million grant to continue a fruitful aquaculture accelerator program aimed at supporting business retention and growth initiatives at a sustainable technology park.

The Economic Development Administration grant, announced last week, will be matched with $459,658 in local investment and is expected to create 250 jobs and spur $40 million in private investment.

The money is earmarked to build on a pilot accelerator program launched three years ago that has already proven successful.

Operated by the organization HATCH, the pilot program helped launch several expanding aquaculture businesses on Hawaii island’s leeward side.

Building on those advances, the grant will fund four additional years for the accelerator, with the goal of turning the pilot program into a self-sustaining operation where innovative leaders can always look to launch and grow their industry-changing endeavors.

“We want more success stories,” said Laurence Sombardier, deputy director for NELHA.

NELHA administers the world’s premier energy and ocean technology park off the coast of Kailua-Kona. Around 50 businesses call the area in North Kona home.

Thirteen companies took part in the accelerator’s first cohort, with another eight participating the second year, during the pandemic.

The Natural Energy of Hawaii Laboratory on the Big Island was created in 1974 to explore green energy technology for Hawaii. Screenshot: NEHLA annual report

One of the 2019 entries, Symbrosia technology, is a clean-tech startup currently expanding at NELHA. Having increased to roughly seven employees, the company is in the process of developing cattle feed using seaweed matter, which will help reduce methane levels in the atmosphere.

The program extension, provided by the grant, will allow similar businesses to grow their ideas. But this year’s batch will have an Aloha State focus.

Called Hawaii Innovation Studio, the new program will concentrate on Hawaii-specific themes and ideas and will be geared for earlier stage projects with the goal of creating a pipeline within Hawaii for the global aquaculture cohorts.

HATCH, which invests in companies with a declared mission to create a more sustainable aquaculture industry, concentrates typically in Singapore and Norway, but wanted to focus on Hawaii-based innovators because the islands are a world pioneer in the aquaculture industry, Sombardier said.

Ten companies will be selected, and the application deadline is June 4.

“It really is building on the success of the previous projects,” Sombardier said.

Aquaculture, also called aquafarming, is the farming of fish, crustaceans, aquatic plants, algae and other organisms.

The method supplies around half of the fish consumed globally and is projected to grow from 66.6 million metric tons in 2012 to 93.2 tons by 2030, according to The CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems. It’s viewed as an integral practice to feeding future generations as the world’s population continues to increase.

The EDA grant money to continue the program was made available through federal disaster relief funds prompted by the 2018 Kilauea eruption, as well as Hurricane Lane, which decimated large sections of eastern Hawaii.

While the Kona Coast and NELHA were untouched by lava or torrential rains, the relief funds are meant to aid the entire island’s economy, which was hampered during the natural disasters.

“The eruption of the Kilauea Volcano had a devastating impact on Hawaii’s economy,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a press release. “This project will support the Big Island’s recovery through the creation of well-paying, quality jobs and the establishment of green technology industries.”

Hawaii leaders praised the announcement.

Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a statement the funds will help maintain Hawaii as “a key global player in bringing sustainable aquaculture research and technology development to market,” while supporting “hundreds of jobs and leveraging millions of dollars.”

Congressman Kai Kahele, representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, called NELHA’s Hawaii Ocean and Science Technology Park, where the projects are located, the “premier site for ocean-related research and education in the U.S.,” a reputation which should only grow with news of the EDA funding support.

Sen. Brian Schatz and Gov. David Ige echoed that sentiment.

“This investment will give NELHA more resources to grow Hawaii Island’s aquaculture industry and build on Hawaii’s rich tradition of sustainable fish farming,” Schatz said in a statement.

“We want more success stories.” — Laurence Sombardier, deputy director for NELHA

News of the program extension came only a few months after NELHA announced three of its tenants were planning millions of dollars in expansion at the park.

NELHA-based businesses Blue Ocean Mariculture and Kowa Premium Foods Hawaii, also known as Big Island Abalone, said in mid-October that they plan to grow their operations significantly, which will create over 150 jobs over the next several years, as well as increase their existing footprints on the site.

Abalone’s neighbor, Blue Ocean Mariculture, meanwhile, is in the process of establishing a finfish processing center to process kanpachi from the company’s offshore cages.

Those plans are independent of the accelerator program, Sombardier said, but point to Hawaii island’s success as a pioneering ground in the industry.

NELHA’s occupants didn’t experience layoffs or suffer other significant hardships that other businesses had to endure during the economic shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a testament to the industry’s independent, innovative market.

The extended accelerator program should help establish Hawaii island as a premier spot to continue such work, Sombardier said.

“I would say we’re confident (of future success) because it’s not a brand-new idea, it’s something we’ve been building,” she said. “We have 50-plus projects here at NELHA and some of them already have provided successful stories.”

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